The pageantry of oil and gas bill 181

House Bill 181 will assure that Colorado is open for business when it comes to oil and gas extraction. Science denying is climate denying, and the science says we have to stop drilling now. Colorado Democrats apparently disagree with the science.

 “We can put the oil and gas wars to bed.” — K.C. Becker, Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives

On Tuesday, April 17, major Colorado environmental organizations stood at the capital with Governor Jared Polis and representatives of the oil and gas industry to celebrate the signing of Senate Bill 181. The bill was the biggest and most promoted oil and gas issue since the blue wave took majority control of the state legislature this year. Headlines about the legislation have filled the news media for months, driving a debate so fierce that it seemed to be based not on the conflict between Democrats and Republicans but on the conflict between capitalism and the climate.

 Boulder politicians K.C. Becker and Steve Fenberg were chosen to promote the new legislation. After public pressure demanding to know the substance of the measure, Becker eventually disclosed that the bill was not being written by community representatives, climate scientists or health care representatives. Instead, it was being written by Jeff Robbins, an oil and gas attorney so trusted by government and industry that he was appointed to the infamous 2015 Oil and Gas Task Force by former governor and drilling proponent John Hickenlooper. Polis then appointed Robbins to lead the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the permitting body for all oil and gas matters. 

 SB 181’s political value is critical to the new Polis administration. Local and state politicians promoted a Democratic sweep of Colorado’s legislature as the only possibility for passing legitimate environmental policy. The ensuing Democratic trifecta — both chambers and the governor’s mansion — combined with the expectations of communities in the path of expanding oil and gas extraction began to fuel concerns that the Democratic sweep would eventually encroach on oil and gas profits. Not to worry. SB 181 and its champions signaled to the important people that the environmentalists had been collared. As the bill’s spokespeople crowed at the signing event, the era of “great uncertainty and political risk for the oil and gas industry” — synonymous with the state’s grassroots activism — is over. 

After months of debate, Governor Polis’ press conference for SB 181 produced a display oriented to Wall Street and the investor class, not to the families living next to massive well-pads. Standing alongside Polis was Matt Owens of Extraction Oil and Gas and representatives from the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, Conservation Colorado, Colorado Rising and the Sierra Club. The governor informed listeners that “industry can operate with reduced uncertainty and significantly reduced political risk, which hurts capital formation.” It didn’t stop there. One speaker after another offered more assurances to industry and capital. Sen. Fenberg proclaimed, “The industry has a level of certainty that any modern industry would seek.” 

Between offerings to Wall Street, a few speakers made superficial claims promoting the bill’s environmental veneer. Even these came out as Orwellian doublespeak, as when K.C. Becker blustered, “The industry can put health and safety first and continue to thrive at the same time.” Polis then helped us reimagine our personal identities: “We are all environmentalists, we are all oil and gas.” Following these words, he highlighted the importance of local elected officials, calling them the people who “know how to integrate industrial operations into a community.” 

Anyone from the political class watching the grand finale of SB 181 knows the takeaway. Colorado is open for the oil business, and under a Democratic Party trifecta, the conflicts of earlier years between communities and the Colorado Oil and Gas industry and its trade organizations like COGA are over. “The framework for SB 181 will allow us to settle our differences in a discreet and reasonable way,” Polis confirmed. 

As the climate around us descends into greater disorder, this is the state of the Colorado political class and its loyal opposition in the professional activist milieu. If there were ever a time to redefine environmentalism, it’s now. We can’t waste more time playing along with the ingratiating politics of the last 50 years. We know our governing and economic system is not broken, it’s fixed. This understanding tasks us to break from old ideas and pageantry and build power that can break that “fixed”system. The minute we shift from the idealism that too often defines conventional activism, we will do more than become an opposition, we will become a movement. 

this opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly